Thursday, March 8, 2012

blazing orange

The first song I ever learned to sing was “Greensleeves.” This was my party trick, the one that never failed to please my parents’ grownup friends. I didn’t know at the time that they were probably tickled to hear a three-year-old sing “Alas, my love, you do me wrong,” even though I probably missed some of the notes.

Like Kathleen here at the Grip, I always loved the colour green, and for similar reasons. I grew up in the mountainous desert of southern Idaho, where green was precious and rare. I loved visiting relatives in Oregon, on the West Coast, where the rainforest reminded me of stories I had read about Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest, in a legendary England that never existed. I didn’t realize until later that the foliage of the Pacific Coast was completely different from that of a medieval English greenwood. Green was green.

But green has already been brilliantly described this week. Another young and juicy colour offers itself for consideration: orange.

In a workshop on auras in an outdoor retreat for lesbians that I attended in the 1980s, I was told that orange is the colour of a prostitute’s aura. I was mystified, then offended, then amused. All the women discreetly looked around as if to say, “I know that’s not in my aura. I wonder if anyone here --?” As if lesbians in general are considered vastly more respectable than those unfortunate girls in skimpy clothes in rundown neighbourhoods, the teenagers with tight bodies whose mere presence screams sex.

If I’m still exuding orange for those who can see it, I thought, I might as well be proud. It’s full of life, a combination of sun-yellow and the red of fire or blood.

Orange is one of the colours I’ve been advised not to wear: too bright against my pale skin, too loud, usually in bad taste. I don’t care. One of my favourite summer tops was a cotton print with butterfly sleeves, all bright orange with a design of black, white, green and yellow around the edges.

Vulgarity and danger go together. Orange is the colour of jack-o-lanterns, innocent little pumpkins carved with leering faces that allow the light of a candle to shine through. Placed in windows on Halloween, they alert the children in costumes that here is a welcoming house, a place where you will be given more treats than your parents would let you eat at any other time of year.

Even the youngest of trick-or-treaters, shuffling through orange, red or yellow piles of fallen leaves, understand the message: have fun but beware. Some candy is poisoned. Some houses are haunted. Be alert and don’t wander off on your own. Not only disembodied spirits are abroad on this night.

As a fall colour, orange signals transition: childhood into puberty into sexual ripeness. In muted or smoky shades, orange is the colour of a second puberty: the end of fertility, the beginning of contemplative old age.

In Canada, orange is full of contradictory political significance. At one time, every village had an Orange Hall, named in honour of King William of Orange, signalling loyalty to the British Crown. In Ireland, Northern or southern, orange clashes with green and can trigger bloody conflict, even now.

Canadian orange, displayed for that reason, has been the colour of nostalgia and tradition. Let’s preserve the Orange Hall as a heritage property as well as grandmother’s tea set and Uncle Fred’s pipe. We could even drive in to the capital city when the Queen comes to visit. They actually clear Albert Street for a few hours so she can be taken to the Legislature in a horse-drawn carriage. How quaint. How far removed from real politics.

While Orange Halls are crumbling to dust, the bright orange of the New Democratic Party is hard to ignore. It’s an unmistakable symbol of the populist party that stands farthest to the left (for what it’s worth) in mainstream Canadian politics. Invented in the Dirty Thirties as a socialist party, it has reinvented itself several times since then.

The colour of the Conservatives is blue, of course: true-blue, Tory blue. The Liberals are presented by red, which they aren’t at all. The colour of the Green Party is self-evident.

Spring 2011 was the season of the Orange Crush: the amazing rise of the NDP in a federal election.

As my spouse and I helped count votes, we were amazed. Not only did the NDP (our party of choice, usually the third most popular) win in several ridings where they hadn’t before, the tidal wave of NDP votes in Quebec (touchy French-speaking province that regularly threatens to separate from the rest of Canada) offered the almost-unthinkable: that the NDP might be voted in as the next federal government.

It wasn’t. The Conservatives were returned to power and the Liberals were almost destroyed. The NDP, as the party with the second-most votes, became the Official Opposition for the first time. Jack Layton, the party leader whose moustached charisma helped fuel the Orange Crush, died of cancer at the height of his popularity. He was buried like a head of state. His widow, Olivia Chow (a politician in her own right), looked as iconic as Jacqueline Kennedy in 1963.

For once, no one had the gall to suggest that orange was in bad taste.


  1. Ah Jean - your imagination ranges so widely! I'm glad you brought in politics, though. So often it's reduced to a simple color clash - the red states versus the blue states, for example.

    I wonder if Kristina will write about red?

  2. Orange is a sentimental color for me. Orange and black construction paper makes me feel like a little kid again getting ready for halloween which was always my favorite holiday back when it was really something.


  3. Jean - I was going to feel guilty about taking green (one of the perks of being early in the week) but I love this post. Thank to Facebook, I have so many Canandian friends now that I'm slowly getting less ignorant about Canada's politics. I find this tuff fascinating. And wear your orange if you want to. Orange is more an attitde than a skin-tone match.

  4. Thanks, all.

    Someone will definitely be writing about red! Our guest-blogger this week is Arinn Dembo, a fantasy writer whose very armospheric story, "Monsoon," was in a Circlet Press antho with a story of mine, and now Arinn is launching a collection, "Monsoon & Other Stories." She has also written something called "Seeing Red," so she graciously agreed to send me a post on that colour before Saturday.


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